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The Ultimatum

A crucial clue and shocking secret are revealed in the hunt for a North Carolina mother's killer

Produced by Alec Sirken, Elena DiFiore and Michelle Feuer

[This story first aired on Jan. 10, 2015. It was updated on Aug. 8.]

At a memorial service in Hendersonville, North Carolina, Jessica Freeman and Andrea Little Gray paid tribute to Vanessa Mintz, their beloved mother who was murdered at their family-owned mountain lodge.

"I can't imagine life without her," Freeman said. "I won't be able to live without her."

"Your whole world shatters ... nothing looks right, nothing feels right," said Little Gray.

That sentiment is echoed by Vanessa's husband of two years, Travis McGraw. His father, Willie, will never forget his son's reaction.

"He was very emotional about the way -- he was speakin', you know, he was just like breakin' into tears," said Willie McGraw.

There was fear that a killer was on the loose, roaming this beautiful community nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

"'Who would've done this to your mom?'" Freeman said of reaction to the murder. "'Not your mom.'"

"What are you thinking? Your mother is dead," "48 Hours" correspondent Peter Van Sant asked.

"I just kept thinkin', 'We're not safe. We are not safe,'" Little Gray replied.

"Because, Jessica, who -- whoever did this is still out there," Van Sant noted.

"Correct," Freeman replied.

Vanessa Mintz and daughters
From left, Vanessa Mintz and daughters Andrea Little Gray and Jessica Freeman
Mintz family

Vanessa Mintz's life revolved around her loved ones and her deep-rooted faith.

"Mom's heart was so big, so big, and she was very trusting and very forgiving -- to a fault," said Freeman.

Vanessa came from one of the most prominent families in this part of North Carolina, going back nine generations. Her father, Carl Mintz, was a Baptist preacher for 40 years. He and his late wife dedicated their lives to their only child.

"She was our love. She was her mother's heartbeat," said Mintz.

Early on, they taught Vanessa the value of sacrifice and helping others, taking her on Christian mission trips around the world.

"She became engrossed in that," said Mintz.

At 18, Vanessa married her first husband, had daughters Jessica and Andrea, and continued her mission work. She also became a successful real estate agent, opening her own company.

"She loved challenges. Loved challenges," Freeman said. "...even if it was in a field she'd had no experience in. She thought, 'Well, I can figure this out.'"

"She'd say, 'Well, why not? ... We can tackle anything,'" added Little Gray.

"She was unstoppable," said Freeman.

So unstoppable, Vanessa was soon a prominent leader supporting new businesses and honoring other local women leaders.

"She was just a mover and a shaker," said longtime friend Marcia Blythe Cunningham. "She did not let the grass grow under her feet because she was always busy doin' somethin'."

That something included molding aspiring young beauty queens, like Heather Waldbart, who, in 2006, won the town pageant and today is a professional dancer.

"She always wanted us to go after our dreams," Waldbart said. "...she was someone who always wanted ... the most for you."

While Vanessa was thriving professionally, on the personal side of life she was lonely. Her first marriage ended in divorce when the couple grew apart. And a second, brief marriage failed, too. Then in early 2008, Vanessa, who had just turned 50, met someone new.

"She was like, "Ladies, I have met my cowboy,'" said Waldbart.

It was Travis McGraw. Nine years younger, the married father of two had just separated from his wife.

"She was very excited about him," said Waldbart.

"It was just a fast friendship that moved into a budding romance that just really took off like wildfire," Freeman explained.

One reason for this burning love was that, like Vanessa, Travis McGraw believed in service. He was in the Air Force Reserve. He had also been a firefighter, an EMT, and was now a police officer.

"She loved that he was a civil servant and had his commitment to the Air Force," said Freeman.

The romance started when McGraw was looking for a new home and Vanessa was his real estate agent. Before long, he was courting her.

"Her phone was constantly going off," Freeman said. "It was just an explosion of text messages, and him droppin' by."

"Dropping by her office?" Van Sant asked.

"Bringing treats to the office. Bringing dinner to her on her shifts down at the motel," Freeman affirmed.

"Travis was charming and loving to her," said Little Gray.

"It has brought ... the sparkle back to mom's eye," Freeman continued.

They said Vanessa and McGraw seemed like the perfect fit. Travis' dad thought so too.

"She ... took interest in the children. He took interest in her children's children and -- you know, there was just a real good, happy camaraderie goin' on there," said Willie McGraw.

Vanessa Mintz and Travis McGraw wedding
Vanessa Mintz and Travis McGraw on their wedding day.
Mintz family

After Travis McGraw's divorce, the couple eloped in 2009.

"...they just loved life together and they loved doing things together. He was such a running partner for her," said Freeman.

But someone wanted Vanessa dead.

"I loved Vanessa," Willie McGraw said tearing up. "And I miss her ... she was always good to me."

"We've got to find this killer," Freeman told Van Sant.

A killer who left behind a calling card.

"W e worked the crime scene in great detail and ... found a crucial piece of evidence that only the killer could have left," said Special Agent Steve Modlin of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.


The details of discovering her mother that Saturday morning are deeply etched in Jessica Freeman's mind.

"It was a beautiful bright sun shiny day for February..." she recalled of the morning of Feb. 19, 2011.

While Vanessa Mintz had been working the overnight shift at the front desk of the family's mountain lodge, her husband, Travis McGraw, was 12 miles away spending the night with his son, 17-year-old Taylor.

"I get up and I find it really strange -- that mom had not called me," Freeman told Peter Van Sant.

Freeman headed right over to the lodge where she was going to take over from her mom.

"As she approached, she noticed the door was partially open. Which again, was very unusual to her," said North Carolina SBI Special Agent Steve Modlin.

"Normally this would be closed," Van Sant commented at the crime scene.

"Correct," the chief investigator replied.

Freeman found her mother on the bed in a back bedroom.

"Now the lights were off, the shades were closed, the television in here was on," said Modlin.

"I started calling her name, 'Momma, momma' -- and there's no sound, but this TV is so loud, so loud," said Freeman.

"The only light at the time in this room was coming off the television, so try to imagine that light dancing on the image of her mother lying here on the bed in this darkness," Van Sant noted to Modlin. "It's almost a macabre kind of scene."

"It is and it's confusing," said Modlin.

"And I look up and there's splattering on the mattress and her pillow and I said, 'Oh momma, you've got to wake up, you have thrown up,'" Freeman explained.

"In the lighting and the situation, she had not put it all together," said Modlin.

Freeman's first call was to Travis McGraw.

"And I said, 'You've got to get down here, you've got to get to the motel. I thought you were supposed to be at the motel with mom. Mom is sick," she said. "He goes, 'What do you mean your mom is sick?' I said, 'She is sick you need to get down here.' 'Well I'm at breakfast.' And I was very curt to him I was rude.

"And so I called my sister and I'm like, 'Oh Andrea, you've got to get down here, something is terribly wrong with mother,'" Freeman continued.

As a nurse, Andrea Little Gray had dealt with trauma.

"And Andrea said, 'Jessica, you've got to look and see if she has a pulse and if there's a rise and fall to her chest.' And ... I saw there was no rise and fall to her chest. And what was making her face look so funny was that there was a hole in her head!" Freeman explained in tears.

"And she just screamed this blood-curdling scream," said Little Gray.

Modlin's investigators had quickly determined there had been two shotgun blasts; one hit Vanessa's forearm.

"The wound there would be a defensive wound," Modlin explained, raising his arm to demonstrate.

And then that second shot to the front of her head.

"This was a brutal shooting," Van Sant remarked to Prosecutor Alex Bass of the Henderson County D.A.'s Office.

"Yes it was," he replied. "It was obvious that the money was gone from the till. There was no money found there. So the first impression you get is it's a robbery."

Just $200 had been taken. But why, investigators wondered, did the killer leave behind an expensive ring on Vanessa's finger?

"We also noted later on these shelves was a stack of Vanessa's jewelry visible and out where she had taken it off the night before," Agent Modlin explained.

There was no sign of a struggle, but whoever shot Vanessa left behind a clue.

The crime scene
The crime scene

"The only thing of note in here was a pair of Vanessa's shoes on the floor and next to them was a single 12 gauge shotgun shell, a spent fired shotgun shell," Modlin said. "The fact that she is in bed in night clothing, it is my opinion that she was ambushed."

"What thief would come in, take the money and say, 'Well I'm now gonna go into the bedroom and shoot this person who's asleep.' That doesn't make any sense," Van Sant said to Bass.

"Exactly my point," the prosecutor replied. "A robbery would get you six or seven years in North Carolina. Murder would get you life or death."

Soon, Vanessa's stunned family gathered in front of the lodge.

"I was so scared. And I just remember falling in the dirt with [my sister] and we just held each other and cried and screamed. I've never screamed like that before in my life," said Little Gray.

Vanessa Mintz and her parents
Vanessa Mintz, far right, with her parents at their lodge.
Mintz family

She then called her grandpa, Carl Mintz, about his only child.

"I just put the phone down, told my wife -- I said, 'Mama, somethin's wrong over at the lodge, and I need to go quickly,'" he said. "And out the door I went."

"And I'll never forget the look on Papa's face," said Freeman.

"And this is the man that has been the strength and our foundational rock and nothing, nothing could crumble him," said Little Gray.

The whole thing was completely unimaginable.

"I'm looking for some derelict that's come by, stopped in and robbed and shot, then gone. I even said to the SBI ... that I wanted him to turn every stone that was necessary to find the perpetrator," Carl Mintz said. "I said, 'I want to surrender that person to God for judge and jury.'"

Everyone wondered who it could be.

"Who was this? Is this someone against our family? Is this someone who -- it was just a roadside robbery?" Little Gray said. "You think of all those things because you're trying to make it make sense."

"I think it's someone looking for drug money or traveling money," said Willie McGraw.

And Jessica Freeman was already angry at one member of the family -- Vanessa's husband, Travis McGraw.

"I had such anger that he wasn't there to protect her, that he had left her vulnerable. And somebody had broken in and killed her," she said.

And the direction the investigation was heading would soon make everyone far angrier.

"Travis McGraw had a lot of secrets he was not wanting to share," Modlin said. "...a whole other life that he had."


A shocking murder of a beloved mother at her family's mountaintop lodge , cash missing from the till and a shotgun shell on the floor. Despite all that, Prosecutor Alex Bass wasn't buying that Vanessa Mintz' murder was a robbery gone bad.

"There were blood stains on the bed. There were blood stains on the wall behind her," he told Van Sant. "What was striking about the crime scene was that -- that apartment was as neat as a pin."

Investigators started from square one.

"They began looking at all the family members. And the first thing they started to do was to get the phone records for them," Bass explained.

Once police obtained Travis McGraw's cell phone records from the phone company, they found some romantic text messages. The problem was they weren't from his wife.

"They led to the discovery that he had a girlfriend on the side," said Bass.

Mary Beth Fisher
Mary Beth Fisher
48 Hours

Mary Beth Fisher was just 27 when she met 44-year-old Travis McGraw, Vanessa Mintz' husband.

"He was very charming," Fisher told Van Sant. "He seemed very warm, kind hearted, eager to help, eager to give advice."

Travis McGraw had followed in his wife's footsteps and was now working for a real estate company in Hendersonville. And that's how he met Fisher. She was looking for a place to live with her young son after recently separating from her husband.

"So you and Travis went out to look at some various properties?" Van Sant asked Fisher.

"Yes ... He was very helpful," she replied. "He definitely was there, with any phone call to answer the phone or answer any text with whatever question I had."

And just like Vanessa, Fisher found McGraw to be an impressive fellow.

"He was in the Air Force, fireman, EMT, police department," said Fisher.

What Travis McGraw left off his resume, Fisher says, was that he was married.

"He just looked at me and said, 'No I don't have anybody," she said.

"No one at all?" Van Sant asked.

"No one," said Fisher.

She says her relationship with McGraw revolved around text messages and phone calls.

"Did you guys have a romantic relationship?" Van Sant asked.

"We were not sexually involved at all," Fisher replied. "I was in such a vulnerable state. I wasn't looking so much for a romantically involved relationship."

"Mary Beth says they didn't have a sexual relationship, is she lying?" Van Sant asked Bass.

"Depends on what sex is, as a recent president once said," the prosecutor replied.

No sex, Fisher says, but lots of love.

"At one point ...we shared the words 'I love you,'" she said.

But there were warning signs about McGraw's commitment. He refused to introduce Fisher to his children.

"Did it strike you as odd that he'd never invite you over to his place?" Van Sant asked Fisher.

"Yes, it did," she replied. "He was really adamant about his kids not knowing who I was."

Then, at the hospital where Fisher worked, she learned from a co-worker that McGraw was married.

"I'm mad!" she told Van Sant. "I should have just said, 'Adios.'"

Mary Beth Fisher says McGraw then told a new story.

"...he then proceeded to tell me that he wasn't with her now. That they were still business partners, they were separated. She lived in one of her properties that she owned, he lived in another property, that they did not live together," she said.

"Were you buying that?" Van Sant asked.

"I bought it," Fisher replied.

Within weeks, McGraw had another problem: Vanessa found out about Fisher.

"I'm not exactly sure of the method of how she learned," Jessica Freeman said of her mother. "She just became completely withdrawn from me. ...she couldn't eat, she couldn't drink, she was so sick."

Freeman and her sister say their mother was determined to save her marriage, and made the dramatic decision to confront Mary Beth Fisher face to face.

"The Wednesday night before she died, she went to her apartment and begged and groveled and pleaded with her to please leave my husband alone," said Freeman.

"They really said that?" Fisher asked.

"That's what they said their mother told them," Van Sant replied.

"Lord," Fisher sighed. "Absolutely not. I never met her."

"This didn't happen?" Van Sant asked.

"No. If it did, then the relationship would have been cut off right there," she said.

Then there was more drama. Fisher says one day she was spending time with McGraw and he ignored his ringing cell phone.

"And I say, 'OK, excuse me, can I have your phone?' And I said, 'Please show me where your texts are,'" she said.

Fisher then read a text message from Vanessa Mintz.

"And it did say, 'Thank you for running errands for me today' and I believe I saw the word 'love' in there. I shut his phone. I gave it back and I said, 'Get outta my house,'" she told Van Sant.

Fisher says McGraw burst into tears and pleaded for forgiveness. They parted.

"And then, once I calmed down a bit, is when I text him," she said.

Her words were plain as day.

"'You need to make a decision on who you wanna be with.' And I said, 'If you wanna be with her, then be with her, that's fine. But you need to make a choice on who you want to be with," she said.

Fisher's ultimatum came with a deadline: it was Thursday and McGraw had until Sunday to decide. Less than 48 hours later, Vanessa was shot to death.

"Travis wrote me, 'If you haven't heard yet, Vanessa was at the motel last night. Someone broke in, robbed the cash drawer and killed her,'" said Fisher.

"You gave Travis an ultimatum. You told him to choose. The next day Vanessa is murdered. Did you think that was just a coincidence?" Van Sant asked.

"It's so weird to say, in my mind I thought it was a coincidence," she replied. "I just didn't want to believe ... this man ...was capable of doing something like that."

Special Agent Steve Modlin had never believed that Vanessa was murdered by a stranger.

"This is not a place you see travelling down the road and think, 'I'll stop there.' You're gonna have to have knowledge that this is here, that this exists," he said.

And once Modlin got those text messages from the phone company, he was convinced that Travis McGraw was the prime suspect.

And he made one crucial mistake.

"Sittin' there right on the floor, plain as day," Bass said. "It was the big piece of evidence."


That shotgun shell left behind by Vanessa Mintz' killer was a telltale clue.

"Point down range, pull the trigger, and then pull back on the forearm-- that will eject the fired shot gun shell," Shane Greene of the N.C. State Bureau Of Investigation said, as he demonstrated for "48 Hours" how he tested Travis McGraw's shotgun -- the same kind of gun he used in his demonstration.

"The fired shotgun shell that was recovered at the lodge was one just like this," he said of the shell fired from his gun.

After the murder, Travis McGraw voluntarily gave police the four shotguns he owned. He was trying to cooperate and had no idea the police had found a shell casing. His truck had also been searched.

"In his truck we found a shotgun shell in the door compartment of the same brand and shot size and specifics as the shell from the crime scene," said NC SBI Special Agent Steve Modlin.

Among McGraw's shotguns was a Mossberg model. So Greene loaded the same kind of shell that McGraw used and fired it.

"You're telling me that you can fire this weapon and there will be distinctive markings on the back of this shotgun shell that would tell you whether or not this shell was fired from that gun?" Van Sant asked Greene.

"That's correct. There will be microscopic markings, imperfections striations, scratches," he replied.

And when Greene compared the shells he fired from Travis McGraw's gun against the one at the crime scene, they were almost identical.

"And how precise is that match in your professional opinion?" Van Sant asked.

"In my opinion it's a 100-percent match. That shotgun shell was fired in the shotgun provided by Travis McGraw," said Greene.

The fired shotgun shell recovered at the crime scene.

Investigators now had that forensic evidence on top of the text messages that included Mary Beth Fisher's ultimatum. Four days after the murder, police arrested Travis McGraw and charged him with first-degree murder.

Jessica Freeman says her "knees buckled" the moment she heard the news.

"I just laid my head on the table," said Andrea Little Gray.

"... and Papa said, 'No, no, no...'" said Freeman.

But the wheels of justice turn slowly in this part of North Carolina. McGraw spent 13 months in jail, and then his family was finally able to raise his $750,000 bail, and he was free.

Jessica Freeman, left, and Andrea Little Gray
Jessica Freeman, left, and Andrea Little Gray
48 Hours

The sisters say he lurked around them ominously in their neighborhood.

"We saw him a lot," said Freeman.

"H e would be on the side of the road," said Little Gray.

"Would he look at you as he drove by?" Van Sant asked.

"He'd wave at us," said Freeman.

"Or do this" Little Gray added, gesturing the pointing of her index finger with thumb raised.

"Like a gun thing?" Van Sant asked.

"I don't know. He'd do this," Little Gray replied, repeating the motion.

"I guess you can interpret it how you want to," said Freeman.

Even with a strong case against Travis McGraw, prosecutors then offered him a plea deal, consulting with Vanessa's daughters: second-degree murder with a sentence of 16 to 20 years. They wanted him to plead guilty, rather than rolling the dice at trial, since the only physical evidence was that shotgun shell.

"And so we all just felt like this was in God's hands and if this was the way the State felt they needed to proceed we were supportive of the state and we would move forward," said Freeman.

On the advice of his lawyer, McGraw accepted the deal. But when the day came in March 2014 to finalize it, there was a shocking development:

Prosecutor Alex Bass: So at this point the State would ask does the defendant wish to accept the plea offer, or not?

Travis McGraw: Nossir.

At the last moment, Travis McGraw changed his mind about pleading guilty.

"I think it's because in my heart and his heart knows he's innocent," Willie McGraw said of his son. "We had a conversation to that effect privately and he told me that he was innocent, looking dead into my eyes."

"How can you not be horribly, horribly disappointed? I mean we were really thinking that today, at the end of the day, we could be at the end of this chapter," said Little Gray.

Three long years after their mother's murder, Jessica Freeman, Andrea Little Gray and their families are finally headed to court for the trial of Travis McGraw.

"I'm thankful that we're finally to this point -- we're exhausted," said Little Gray.

Heidi Latham, a friend of Vanessa Mintz', takes the stand. Latham was staying at the lodge the night of the murder and was startled awake:

"It was definitely a whooshing sound -- I felt like something was banging against the building, probably the echo, so it was pretty loud," Latham testified.

Unable to fall back to sleep, Latham left the lodge. She noticed Travis McGraw's red truck:

Prosecutor Alex Bass: And where was the red truck parked?

Heidi Latham: Parked in front of the breezeway.

Remember, McGraw had told police he had spent the night with his son at Vanessa's house, about 12 miles from the lodge. Latham's testimony contradicts his story.

Air Force Major William Beauchene, Travis McGraw's former commander, then testifies that he contacted police shortly after word spread that Vanessa had been murdered. Why? Because Travis had already tried to collect on the $100,000 military life insurance policy he had on Vanessa:

Prosecutor Alex Bass: Why did this cause you concern?

Maj. William Beauchene: I was shocked that within 10-12 hours --

Defense lawyer: Objection.

Judge: Overruled. Go ahead.

Maj. William Beauchene: Within 10 to 12 hours I was receiving an email about inquiring about insurance.

Then it was time for the prosecution's star witness to take the stand - McGraw's former girlfriend, Mary Beth Fisher, who continues to insist their relationship was platonic:

Mary Beth Fisher: It was not a physical relationship as a married couple or a boyfriend/girlfriend would have that element of it. It was just heavy texting. And it did get emotional through texting.

"You're two adults, both been in marriages in the past," Van Sant remarked to Fisher. "It seems like a very normal next step that you would have been romantic, had a physical relationship."

"It does, and now looking back, I kinda wondered why he didn't want that," she replied.

Fisher tells the jury about that ultimatum she texted to Travis:

Mary Beth Fisher: "If you want to be with her then be with her, but make that choice on who you want to be with exclusively" is what I texted him. And then I said, "Then let me have an answer on Sunday."

Fisher testifies she only asked Travis about Vanessa's death one time:

Mary Beth Fisher: The only thing I've ever said to him about this whole case was, "How do you feel now after all this has happened?" His response was, "I feel relieved for her, because of financial issues she was having."

Vanessa's family says money was a bit tight at that time, but no serious problems.

Prosecutors laid out their strong evidence about the shotgun shell, which they said put McGraw in the room where Vanessa Mintz was shot. And there was only one witness left who could dispute that account: Travis himself.

Travis McGraw takes the stand.
Travis McGraw takes the stand.
48 Hours

Defense attorney Tony Dalton: Did you shoot your wife with that shell?

Travis McGraw: No sir. I did not.

He testifies that he went target shooting the day before, on open land near the airport, and had put the spent shotgun shells in his pocket:

Travis McGraw: After I went shooting that day I felt like I'd pulled all the shells outta my pocket when I'd changed clothes. If that one fell outta my pants, that's where it's come from. That's the only way a shell outta my gun got into the Saluda Mountain Lodge that night.

But there's a problem with his story. A cell phone expert testifies that the cell phone in Travis McGraw's pocket that day was nowhere near where he said he was target shooting.

Finally, McGraw falls back on his resume, trying to charm the jurors just as he had charmed Vanessa Mintz and Mary Beth Fisher:

Travis McGraw: I have two Air Force achievement medals, an Air Force accommodation medal.

"What could he possibly have to say?" said Jessica Freeman.

"It's like being in the room with pure evil. It feels gross," said Andrea Little Gray.

Prosecutor Alex Bass: You didn't feel the need to tell her that you were married to Vanessa Mintz, did you?

Travis McGraw: No sir.

Prosecutor Alex Bass: You were in love with Mary Beth, weren't you?

Travis McGraw: Yes sir.

Prosecutor Alex Bass: You wanted to be with her, didn't you?

Travis McGraw: Yes sir.

Defense attorney Tony Dalton: Tell the court about that.

But defense attorney Dalton doesn't want the jury to think that Travis's love was motive for murder:

Defense attorney Tony Dalton: Did you kill Vanessa because of that deadline?

Travis McGraw: Absolutely not. Nobody deserves what Vanessa got. No.

But McGraw has one more hope to sway the jury. His now 20-year-old son, Taylor, testifies that he believes his father was in the house with him all night because nothing woke him up:

Taylor McGraw: Pretty much anyone walked past the room, even if the door was closed,because of the vibrations, it would cause the dog to bark.

Defense attorney Tony Dalton: So the only way your father could get out of that room was to go past the dog?

Taylor McGraw: Correct

But on cross examination, Taylor acknowledges he wasn't exactly a light sleeper:

Prosecutor Alex Bass: Do you recall telling the SBI agents that when you sleep you sleep like a rock?

Taylor McGraw: Yessir.

But Willie McGraw is convinced that his son is innocent. And he hopes the jury will find it impossible to believe that a former military man and police officer would have been so careless as to leave behind a shotgun shell and keep a murder weapon at his house -- and then give it to police.

"My son is probably arrogant, he's a little high strung -- but he ain't stupid!" he said.


After seven days of testimony, 17 witnesses and 85 exhibits, closing statements begin.

"This being a first-degree murder case, it's high stakes" defense attorney Tony Dalton addressed the court. "I submit to you not being a faithful ... husband doesn't mean you're a murderer."

Dalton reminds jurors to focus on the facts and not Travis McGraw's questionable character.

"Mr. McGraw, you may find to be a person of bad judgment, you may find ... his character to be not up your standards. But that's not the question here," he continued. "Give Mr. McGraw a fair trial. ...and if you find a reasonable doubt ... find this man not guilty."

Prosecutor Alex Bass takes his turn, saying all the evidence points to Travis McGraw's guilt.

"The defendant did it! He had every reason to do it. He had the means, and the motive, and the ability, and the smarts to try to frame it up as a robbery," Bass told jurors. But he wasn't nearly as smart as he thought he was."

That's because Travis McGraw left behind that shotgun shell -- the critical piece of physical evidence tying him to the crime.

"And that was the defendant's biggest error," Bass continued, holding up the shell. "'Cause that shell landed on the floor. But in the passionate heat of trying to escape ... he didn't go back in that darkened room."

Bass tells jurors the motive for murder.

"He was in love, or what passes in the mind of Travis McGraw for love, because we all know that's an infatuation," Bass told told the court.

And by killing Vanessa Mintz, McGraw thought he would have what he craved: $100,000 of insurance money, maybe even Vanessa's house -- enough to impress his new girlfriend.

"...the defendant had every reason, in this case, to kill his wife ... he can go on being a white knight for Mary Beth," Bass continued. "When you start putting all those facts and circumstances together, and then put the evidence of motive on top of that, you get a complete picture of this defendant. And the picture that you have of this defendant is guilty."

After some final instructions: "When you have unanimously agreed upon a verdict notify the bailiff by knocking on the jury room door, " the judge sends the jury out, and the wait for that knock begins.

Hoping for a quick verdict, no one strays too far from the courtroom - Vanessa Mintz' family on one side, Travis McGraw's on the other.

"I'm really nervous about the whole thing. I'm on edge a little bit ... especially since the jury has not come back in yet," Willie McGraw said. "Travis -- he's got a confident feeling about it."

Two hours pass...

Asked what the wait is like, Jessica Freeman tells Peter Van Sant, "Oh, it's so hard. The minutes are heavy ... And every sound, every creak in the old courthouse room, you just - 'Is that the knock at the door?'"

The jury is dismissed for the day, and returns the next morning.

"And you're just sitting there just praying ... on knife's edge," said Andrea Little Gray.

Lunchtime passes, but still no knock. There's more waiting in the courtroom.

Throughout deliberations, Vanessa's family prays. It's all too much for Jessica.

"The feeling in the room, the energy, it was just electric when that knock came upon that door that the jury was ready," said Freeman.

Finally, after eight hours of deliberating, it's judgment day. The verdict is unanimous: Travis McGraw is found guilty of first-degree murder.

Just minutes after the verdict, he's slapped with the maximum sentence: life behind bars with no chance of parole.

"Guilty," Van Sant remarked to Vanessa's daughters.

"Guilty," they replied in unison.

"And when you hear that word after all you've been through?"

"To hear those words 'guilty' and ...'you will spend life in prison,' I felt like I finally, since Feb 19, 2011 ...I finally took a deep breath," said Freeman.

The former police officer is now a convicted murderer.

"You could've walked away and left. You did not have to kill her," Freeman said of McGraw.

"I don't want to have feelings of anger, because he's going to be getting his just reward," said Vanessa's father, Carl Mintz.

"Do you sit at night and wonder to yourself, 'I may have been the motive that Travis used to murder his wife?'" Van Sant asked Mary Beth Fisher.

"I have thought about that and I feel bad that that thought is out there, because honestly ... nobody thinks that when they're involved in the situation or gives somebody an ultimatum, that that person would go and shoot the person they're involved with, just to get outta the situation. That's just not reasonable, normal people don't do that," she replied.

Vanessa Mintz
Vanessa Mintz
Mintz family

Jessica Freeman treasures the last voice mail she received from her mom ... and the influence she had on everyone around her.

"I want my mother to be remembered for who she was, not how she died. I want my mother to be remembered as ... a passionate Renaissance woman that was able to tackle ... the world ... and to be near her was to be blessed."

Travis McGraw is serving his life sentence under protective custody in a facility reserved for police and high-profile prisoners. His appeals hearing is scheduled for Aug. 12.


To honor their Mother's memory and continue her work in the community, Vanessa Mintz's daughters have established a foundation named for her. Vanessa's Vision supports non-profit organizations that share the goals of raising awareness of domestic violence, and supporting women, children, and mission work.

  • Peter Van Sant

    Correspondent, "48 Hours"